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The Malachite Translation

MoskvaSounds a little like a Robert Ludlum novel, right?  But no, I’m referring to a collection of P. P. Bazhov’s traditional tales of the Ural Mountains and the miners who worked there.  It’s entitled The Malachite Casket in English (Malakhitova︠i︡a shkatulka in transliterated Russian).

The stories are very well known by Russian speakers, and Sergei Prokofiev’s last ballet, The Tale of the Stone Flower, is based on these tales.

I didn’t know what malachite was when my parents gave me the book, though I sort of knew what a “casket” was (a coffin?).  But I fell in love with malachite, a copper ore, as soon as I saw it.  Here’s what it looks like:  Unknown-2

And the “malachite casket” of the stories is a jewelry box, not a box for a dead body!

I was reminded of these beautiful tales when I was recently reading two books on translation – one a 2013 compilation by various translators entitled In Translation, and the other Edith Grossman’s 2010 book, Why Translation Matters.  She ought to know; she has written the best translation of Don Quixote in half a century (no mean feat!).

We owe a debt to translation that most of us, I think, tend to forget.   Unless we read French, we have not read Perrault’s original (written) versions of Unknown-3“Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty of the Wood,” “Blue Beard” and “Little Red Riding Hood” (you may be unpleasantly surprised at some of these stories, especially if all you know are the Disney versions!).  Unless we read German, we have not read the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Fisherman and His Wife” and “The Bremen Town Musicians” (don’t read “The Girl With No Hands” or “All-Kinds-of-Fur;” they’re very creepy).  If we don’t know Classical Greek, we can’t read Aristophanes’ original comedy  The Birds, no Latin and and we can’t read Ovid’s original Metamorphoses – and to bring in a more contemporary note, if we don’t know Swedish, we can’t read the original of Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Jules Verne didn’t write 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in English and Nobel Prize winner images-2Gabriel García Márquez didn’t write One Hundred Years of Solitude in English (it was brilliantly translated by Gregory Rabassa). These works are all translations from other languages into English.

We English speakers are spoiled because there is so much written originally in English, and so many authors want their works translated into English.  We can all too easily fall into feeling that anyone important – Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner – already wrote in our language, so why bother with anything from another language?

Why?  For two reasons.  One is that many important things have been written in other languages (however you want to define important); another language furnishes another window on the world, other points of view.  That’s what makes translation so difficult – and makes getting it right so essential.

And the other reason?  Because so many works written in other languages are so wondrous.  I have never stopped loving The Malachite Casket.  I don’t know how good a translation mine is – but I have never forgotten the characters:  the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, Danila the Craftsman who longs to make exquisite goblets of malachite, Katya, who dares scold the Mistress for stealing her man by showing him the Stone Flower, Tanyushka who leans against the malachite wall of the Tsar’s palace in St. Petersburg and simply melts away…  Open another window on the world and add what you see to your own vision.  Translation does matter.


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Happy Love a Tree Day

Today is Love a Tree Day!  This relatively unknown holiday falls every year on May 16th.  It’s a good day to plant a tree, water a tree, learn about a tree, and yes, hug a tree.

On a more personal note, the holiday falls during my parents’ visit this year.  And that’s perfect timing.  My dad has a bit of Johnny Appleseed in him.  For the first several years of his retirement, he was all about trees.  On a piece of land in Oregon, he walked miles and miles, digging and planting.  With 100 pounds of Douglas Fir seedlings on his back, he planted the first mile.  He then hiked back to the car for another 100 pounds to plant from mile two to mile three.  Back to the car for another load of seedlings, another mile, and another round of digging and planting.  When I asked why, he simply responded that this would be a good forest one day.  It’s getting closer – the first year’s trees are now twenty feet tall.  In another generation or two, this will be a grand old-growth forest.  My dad is no longer planting his forest, but this year on Love a Tree Day, Johnny Appleseed is In The House.  And we are celebrating.

For a celebration of your own, check out our growing collection of tree tales.

redwoods 1 15Follow a young boy as he wanders through a forest of giant redwoods, using only his imagination and a book he finds as he’s riding the New York subway.


appleseed 1 15Many know the legend of Johnny Appleseed, the Massachusetts man who planted apple trees all the way to California.  But this true story of Johnny Appleseed, or John Chapman, is even greater than the legend.


picture-a-tree-1 x 15This award-winning new book asks, “What do you see, when you picture a tree?”  Lyrical language and sculptured illustrations invite readers to take a new and creative look at trees.


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I remember a book I loved when I was a kid…

One of the fun parts of working on the Children’s Information Desk is helping people find books. And fairly often, someone will come to the desk and begin their question with, “There was this book I loved when I was a kid…” and then they’ll say something about how the Library probably doesn’t have it or the librarian has never heard of it. And then we magically know the book they want and get them a copy, and they are so happy to see their old friend again!

But it’s not magic. Because if there’s a book that you have read that’s so good that you remember it for ten or thirty or fifty years, and loved it enough to want to find it again, chances are that others did too. And if enough other people read and loved and remember that book…that’s what makes a classic.

Just for fun, I emailed everyone who works at the Sunnyvale Library asking what their favorite childhood book was. I limited everyone to one book (and that’s a hard choice to make) but didn’t specify any particular age group they had to have read it in…and here are the results, in no particular order..

And because most of these are classics, you’ll probably recognize many of them. And maybe you’ll come to the Sunnyvale Library, find them, reread them, and share them with another generation.

Oh, and as I was typing this blog post, someone walked up to me and said, “There was this book I read when I was a kid…”


homer sidewalk garden

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
Behold Your Queen! by Gladys Malvern
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum (two people listed this)
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill
Homer Price by Robert McCloskey
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell




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Armchair Student

My daughter went to a school with one of the best biology departments in the country.  She majored in biology, graduated summa cum laude, and went to UCSF for her doctorate.

But her college also demanded a History of the World class that lasted for two years; she chose the school for that reason, too.  History, science, art – she loved it all.

Sometimes I mourn the fact that one has to concentrate on only one thing in graduate school (I’ve been to graduate school too, so I know).  What a pity not to be able to keep taking other subjects…

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from her:  “I thought you might be interested in this…”  And a link.  I clicked on it – and what should it be but a class in Egyptology, taught by two professors from the Autonomous University of Barcelona!images

I e-mailed her back:  “Looks fascinating – are you interested?  Too bad you’re completely tied up in science and can’t do some humanities!”  She responded, “It’s a free internet course.  I signed up already.” images-5

Who would have imagined?  I looked at it more carefully, listened to the two professors explaining what they were planning to teach (in Spanish, of course!) and wrote back to her, “OK, you talked me into it – I’m on board.”  I thought she might be sorry she told me, but no:  “Good!  Now if I get confused you can help me.”

Nor was that all – she told me she’d signed up for another class, Greek and Roman mythology, taught by a professor at U. Penn.  I looked at that one, and signed up for it too!   I apologized for seeming to stalk her, but she e-mailed me back:  “Don’t apologize, this will be fun!  Maybe. I dunno. I’m nervous about the Spanish one…”


I had never forgotten a class I sat in on at Currier House, taught by a brilliant Indo-European scholar, Gregory Nagy, on the Iliad, the Odyssey, Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days.  Now I would have a chance, decades later, to retake the class.  And retake it with my daughter.  All I had to do was get the prescribed editions and wait till April, which is when it’s  scheduled to start.

I was so excited that I called my sister and told her about the mythology class.  I sent her the link, in case she wanted to take it.  No, she was more interested in a class on English common law; she thought she’d sign up for that one.

Then I e-mailed my friend Julia, a native Mandarin speaker and a former software engineering manager who switched to working for an education nonprofit some years ago.  I sent her a link to 6 classes in Mandarin, including one about Chinese opera, which I knew she had a weakness for. images-5

She e-mailed me back immediately:  “I love it!  And that’s just the one short page you sent me.  I can’t wait to be retired so I can take all these classes!”

What is it that makes us want to go back and learn?  My father was a child of the Depression; his father died when he was six.  He was never able to save up the dollar required to become an Eagle Scout then, let alone find the money to go to college in the hardscrabble 1930s.  He worked until he was 63 and then retired.  He started taking painting classes then, and a year before he died, he enrolled in junior college and began taking history classes.  He got an A in images-5his first class, American History, and the professor asked him to become a tutor (American history was a requirement, and many students had difficulty with it).  “They’ll pay you,” she offered.  “I don’t need to be paid,” he said.  “I’m happy to do it.”

So for all of you armchair students out there, listen up.  Here’s the link to the outfit that’s offering my classes: . Full disclosure:  I have no connection to them, except the two courses I’m signed up for.

If it’s time for you to get back to class (in the comfort of your own living room), here’s your chance.  Anything from Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World to A History of Art for Artists, Animators and Gamers; take a look at the class listings.  I just want to warn you about one thing:  my mythology class starts on April 22, and I’m going to need one of the library’s copies of the Robert Fagles edition of the Odyssey.  If you want to take the class, you can get out the second copy, get another copy on Link+, or you can use the online texts at  And if you don’t know how to use Link+, ask a librarian!















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Books Meet Art: Quick Hits

Need some book-related artistic entertainment/inspiration? Here are three blogs that are definitely worth a glance, and maybe even a follow.

a sample from Corpus Libris

Even if you don’t know Chip Kidd‘s name, you definitely know his work. Kidd is a prolific and prominent book cover designer. Among his many well-known designs are Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, Naked by David Sedaris, and 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. His blog is varied and interesting, with highlights of his work mixed in with observations (often humorous) about publishing and design in general.

A fun blog that I found linked from Kidd’s is Corpus Libris, where readers submit photos of themselves replacing parts of their bodies with the images from book covers. Equal parts creative and hilarious, perhaps you’ll be inspired to contribute with a book you find in our collection?

Another Kidd link referral, artist Thomas Allen does amazing photographs using books in creative ways, particularly with his cutouts from pulp novel covers, where the characters come bursting (literally) to life out of the pages of their books.

a Thomas Allen design

On another note, several months ago on this blog, I mentioned filmmaker and Sunnyvale native Bernie Su’s web video project The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Since that post, Bernie gave a talk here at Sunnyvale Library, wrapped up the series, and announced a follow-up project in one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever. The series has become wildly popular, as this article from WIRED describes. If you haven’t taken a look, I highly recommend it (be warned, the 100+ episodes are highly addicting).

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